Dluxe's World

Tuesday, December 19

The Letter of the Law [2]

This is a rough post, written with little (umm, 'no') editing. So be warned. This all goes back to a previous post: Is being worried about speeding being legalistic?

The dictionary defines the term legalism as "strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code"... That definition is clear as a bell, isn't it? What a great summary of what legalism is. I see two different 'flavors' at work here:
  • Legalism could be seen as some sort of obsessive/compulsive bent towards adhering to the law. If LegalistBrian was walking down the street eating a melting popsicle, I'd be forced to stop and clean up and drips or dribbles that made it to the street. After all, I don't want to be guilty of littering...
  • Likewise, LegalistBrian could be focused at the microscopic level. For example, I could feel justified for letting my cat run free and poop all over the park because leash & pooping ordinances all mention dogs specifically.
No matter the specific bent of someone's legalism, I immediately wonder something: Why would someone choose to behave that way?

Setting aside psychological illness for a moment, I think the "Why?" question is critical for understanding legalism in a Biblical context. So, I want to propose a slightly modified definition for this discussion: Legalism is a reliance on strict adherence to the law for the purpose of obtaining or assuring our right standing with God or the approval of man.

Legalism, at its core, has a huge component of pride. Consider how Jesus rebukes the Pharisees in Matthew 23:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. (Matthew 23:1-7)

The Pharisees attempted to keep the law rigorously for all the wrong reasons. Rather than seeking to glorify God, their underlying aim was their own self-exaltation before man. They loved it that other people looked at them with awe and respect. They craved the adulation of their peers and sought to gain benefit from the status that they had achieved.

But note that the common listener here is told to 'practice and observe whatever they tell [you]'. So, while pride has tainted the Pharisee's conduct, obedience to the commands/teachings is still part of other people's duty. John Calvin explains it this way:
The design of Christ was, that the people might not, in consequence of being offended at the vices of the scribes, throw away reverence for the Law. For we know how prone the minds of men are to entertain dislike of the Law; and more especially when the life of their pastors is dissolute, and does not correspond to their words, almost all grow wanton through their example, as if they had received permission to sin with impunity...

Our Lord gives a general exhortation to believers to beware of conforming their life to the wicked conduct of the scribes, but, on the contrary, to regulate it by the rule of the Law which they hear from the mouth of the scribes; for it was necessary ... that he should reprove many abuses in them that the whole people might not be infected. [Christ] enjoins believers to attend to their words, and not to their actions; as if he had said, that there is no reason why the bad examples of pastors should hinder the children of God from holiness of life.

As believers, we should desire to live holy lives as a means of worship. We know that our best behavior, our greatest righteousness, isn't going to measure up to the standard that God would demand of us on our own. The great grace we have been shown in Christ should serve as to catapult us towards lives that are obedient to God. We will fail, over and over... But our imperfection should highlight the magnitude of the Gospel that has rescued us.

That isn't to excuse our failures... But when we fall, it should cause us to get us, dust ourselves off, thank God for grace that is greater than our sin, and ask for strength to live a life pleasing to our Savior.

A legalist says, "Try harder to gain acceptance". I think the cry of redeemed Christians should be "Embrace your acceptance and, therefore, try harder". As Keller noted in yesterday's quote, the difference between those two ideologies is a radical one.

So, by saying that we need to be mindful of something like speeding I'm really not being legalistic. Your speeding or driving only 15mph wherever you go isn't really the issue here. The issue is whether you are submitting your heart, pride, and personal agenda to the One who purchased us with His blood... What is pleasing to our Savior?

One last clarification: I am not saying that speeding is, in and of itself, sinful. If you look down at your speedometer and find yourself thoughtlessly going 10 over the limit, I don't think you need to repent. However, if you willfully violate a statute you know to be in operation over you then I think you have some heart issues that need to be checked. It isn't your foot, it's your attitude...

Again... sorry that this is incoherent. No time for editing today (and I want to wrap this up). Besides, all of you are already used to my thoughtless ramblings...



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